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Lawsuit alleges prison system and private companies involved in “modern-day slavery”

The suit seeks to eliminate the alleged labor scheme and have current and former incarcerated workers compensated properly.

The seal of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

A new federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Alabama’s prison system, parole system and private companies are involved in a practice of forced labor that generates a profit of $450 million for the state akin to “modern-day slavery.”

“Labor coerced from Alabama’s disproportionately Black incarcerated population is the fuel that fires ADOC’s extremely lucrative profit-making engine,” the suit alleges. 

The suit was filed in collaboration between current and former incarcerated people, national labor unions and civil rights organizations. The individual plaintiffs in the suit include Robert Earl Council aka Kinetik Justice, Alimireo English, Lakeira Walker and Michael Campbell along with several others. They represent those similarly situated to them meaning over 20,000 current and former Alabama workers who have been put through the alleged forced labor practice. 

Several unions and civil rights organizations are named in the suit including the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), Mid-South Council and The Woods Foundation. The AFL-CIO is not named but is also standing in support of the plaintiffs as they bring the suit. 

The lawsuit says that Alabama’s prisons create a dangerous environment through extraordinary violence that incarcerated people are exposed to incentivizing them to seek ways out of the prisons to work release programs. Once at these work release centers the workers are then able to have their labor “leased” to different beneficiaries according to the suit. ADOC also has, “express rules that severely punish incarcerated people both for refusing to work and for encouraging work stoppages.”

Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall are named as the “architects” of this system. Along with Marshall and Ivey, the lawsuit names other defendants including businesses and municipalities. A list of defendants includes ADOC Commissioner Jon Hamm, Chair of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole Leigh Gwathney, specific Alabama locations of KFC, Wendy’s and McDonald’s, and the cities of Montgomery and Troy. 

Janet Herold, the legal director of Justice Catalyst Law, compared the alleged forced labor scheme to the system of convict leasing that Alabama participated in after the Civil War that targeted specifically Black people. Herold’s comments came during a Zoom press conference with several of the plaintiffs on Tuesday hosted by BerlinRosen. 

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“It is no coincidence that the individual plaintiff class representative in this case are Black,” Herold said. “The forced labor scheme that currently exists in the Alabama prison system is the modern reincarnation of the notorious convict leasing system that replaced slavery after the Civil War…Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall and the Alabama Department of Corrections coerce labor and sustain this forced labor scheme by maintaining brutal, horrific conditions inside state prisons. And directly and often severely punish anyone who refuses to work or even anyone who encourages people to refuse to work.”

Herold also stated that since 2018 the parole system in Alabama has perpetuated the forced labor scheme by eliminating evidence-based parole decisions with a discriminatory parole system. According to Herold and the lawsuit, Black Alabamians have been denied parole at a rate of 2 to 1 when compared to their white counterparts. 

“In fact, as the Governor, Attorney General, and Parole Board are fully aware,” the suit states, “their challenged practices and policies resulted in the discriminatory denial of parole to Black parole candidates at a rate of 2 to 1 compared to similarly situated white parole candidates between FY 2020 and 2022.” 

Several of the former and current incarcerated individuals provided testimony of what they experienced during their time incarcerated and working under ADOC. Walker discussed the conditions she had to work through and how many incarcerated women were threatened if they refused to work.

“We would work from 2 pm to 2 am, 12 hours a day, with no sufficient clothing to accommodate the job. Some days you were freezing cold, 30 or 40 degrees. If you didn’t work, you were at risk of going back to the prison or getting a disciplinary,” Walker said. “You have so many women on the inside now who are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. Those women really need help. They need a voice.” 

English discussed witnessing first-hand the effects of people being denied parole especially when they have done what they need to be considered rehabilitated.

“I have endured and witnessed the exploitation of rehabilitated, trustworthy and model inmates throughout my 13 years of maneuvering throughout the ADOC,” English said. “To deny parole in order to assure reliable servitude is an obvious travesty.”

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Fred Redmond, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and Chair of the AFL-CIO Racial Justice Task Force, also spoke during the Zoom call stating how important the suit was specifically to prevent forced labor.

“This lawsuit is a strong first step toward eliminating forced labor in the Alabama prison system, and righting the wrongs from this egregious labor exploitation,” Redmond said. “Fighting to abolish forced labor is a priority of the AFL-CIO and the American labor movement. And we won’t rest until this corrupt, immoral scheme ends for good.”

The suit seeks to eliminate the alleged labor scheme and have current and former incarcerated workers compensated properly.

Patrick Darrington is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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